Up the Amazon by Boat and Barge

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Brazil  ,
Monday, October 2, 2006

"I'm afraid there's been a small problem" declared Adimar when we arrived at the ramshackle Macamazon office to pick up our tickets. "The engine on the 'NM Santarém' has broken down, so unfortunately it won't be leaving as usual tomorrow. Better to send your van on the barge today, and go on another boat later in the week." "But we don't want the van sitting around in a compound in Manaus for several days before we arrive" we replied - thinking to ourselves that it would most likely be stripped bare in the meantime - "we'd better ship it later in the week." "No, no, you have to ship your van today - and anyway the barge takes 8 or 9 days to arrive, so you'll get there at the same time." "But you told us on Saturday that the barge only takes 6 days!" "Yes, well, maybe this week it'll take longer, so don't worry.""Okay, well what other options are there for a boat?" "Oh, there are lots, no problem. Probably it would be best to wait until the 'Santarém' gets back from Manaus in two weeks and go then." "But you said the 'Santarém' has to get its engine repaired!" "I did? Oh, I forgot, but it's probably been fixed by now - but you can't get a cabin anyway." "But on Saturday you said we had a confirmed reservation!" ....and so it went. No wonder that we nicknamed our scruffy agent "Sleazy Adi"!

In the end we did manage to ship DC3 on Monday evening and get ourselves a berth on the 'NM Clívia' sailing on Wednesday. We subsequently found out that the 'Santarém' is by far the best option, with air-conditioned cabins and private bathrooms, and is always booked for weeks, often months, in advance. Unfortunately, the 'Clívia' charges the same fare but is certainly not as well regarded - with good reason. The Lonely Planet sums it up quite succinctly ...."super-crowded, poor food, and the risk of theft is high." The process of getting everything arranged has been a very frustrating, drawn-out, sweaty business. Not only did we have great difficulty in getting a straight story on anything, but everywhere we went was very sordid and decrepit and we sometimes wondered if we would ever get out in one piece. Of course, every transaction was completed in Portuguese with our bit of Spanish thrown in, so that added to the complications. And to top it off the temperatures continued to soar into the high 30s by mid-morning, with 95% dripping humidity until the obligatory tropical downpour every afternoon.

We say that DC3 was shipped on Monday evening, but that is a somewhat optimistic simplification. We spent several hours at the barge company yard about 20 km north of Belém getting the inventory and shipping papers finalized and paying the $500 fee. We finally found out that the van would not be loaded directly onto a barge, but rather driven into the trailer section of a transport truck with other new cars being shipped, and then the trailer loaded onto the barge. Forty trailers per barge, and then two or three barges lashed together and pushed along by one little tug boat. With this particular company at least, there was no possibility of us traveling along with our van - and of course we had to leave the key with the van. Just another couple of Sleazy Adi's little fabrications! By the time we drove DC3 up into the trailer with a couple of other cars and everything got tied down, it was starting to get dark. A truck then deposited the trailer further down towards the river, but we had no idea when it would actually get loaded on a barge and shipped upstream. We dutifully noted the plate number of the trailer and the code on the flimsy looking seal on the rear doors, but we had definite misgivings about when we might see our little van again and what condition she might be in when we did. Luckily, we did get a ride back into town - everyone assured us it was much too dangerous to try hitching a lift in the dark - but our anxiety levels would likely remain high for the next week or so.

If you have the idea that a five-day, 1,400 km passage up the Amazon is going to be a relaxed, exotic sort of affair, you'd better think again! Maybe on the 'Santarém' or a cruise ship (they say they exist, but we have yet to see one) but definitely not on the 'Clívia'. The first requirement is a pair of good quality earplugs. From 9 am until late in the night the pair of 6' high boom boxes blasted out Brazilian pop music at 'way-way-over-the-top' volume. The only time we were able to escape this 'entertainment' was when we went for our meals down in the bowels of the boat, right next to the thundering roar of the diesel motors where you literally couldn't hear yourself think. This was also the cargo area, stacked high with sacks of onions and yams, crates of beer, mattresses, bags of footballs, bicycles, truck tyres and all sorts of other sundry goods. At least the food was plentiful and the lunch and dinner menu varied endlessly - some days rice, beans and chewy meat, other days beans, tough meat and rice or maybe for a change stringy meat, rice and beans. No veggies, but at least there was fruit for breakfast with the compulsory ham and cheese bun. Our steel windowless cabin was 6' by 5', and just under 6' high - two bunks and definitely no room to swing a cat. In the scorching afternoon sun it became an uninhabitable oven - but at least we could sit out on deck and enjoy the music! On the lower deck the hammocks were strung up with barely room to ease out a fart in the night, so we felt very lucky to at least have the privacy of a cabin. The washroom shared between 10 cabins was multi-functional. With the shower located right above the toilet, its use immediately turned the 3' x 4' cubicle into an instant sauna!

The Amazon river, from the Atlantic Ocean up to Manaus, and further upstream to Leticia on the Colombian border or Porto Velho on the Rio Madeira tributary, provides the only feasible transportation infrastructure for the vast state of Amazonas. Although a 5,000 km Transamazonian Highway was planned at one time, only a fraction of it was ever built and most of that is apparently now in disrepair. The Amazon provides the only affordable means of getting around. As we travelled up this mighty waterway a couple of degrees south of the equator we encountered other vessels of every conceivable description - from huge cargo freighters weighed down with grains or stacked high with containers, to barges loaded with fuel or lumber, to passenger boats of all shapes and sizes, down to modest dug-out canoes. We made several stops at sizable towns like Breves, Almeirim, Prainha and Parintins, always dropping off and picking up passengers and delivering a certain amount of cargo. On our fourth day we stopped at the major city of Santarém for six hours and offloaded 526 crates of beer, 274 sacks of onions and 329 packs of pasta. Can you tell we were getting rather bored by this stage?

As we travelled we generally hugged the bank (downstream traffic takes advantage of the mid-river current) and spent our days shore gazing and watching life go by. Where there were little settlements there would generally be some activity - a flurry of small craft and maybe a lumber mill spewing black smoke - but otherwise it was pretty uneventful. Watching canoes trying to hitch a lift with the boat was quite interesting and often provided the highlight of the day. It obviously required considerable skill to paddle the canoe alongside the boat as it swept by and get the timing for a leap at one of the rubber tyre fenders just right, and then hang on for dear life until you could get a line tied on. People dwelling alongside the river are outstandingly adept at living on and in the water from a very early age. Otherwise, we would watch the occasional pair of river dolphins frolicking in the murky water and check out the egrets, cormorants and terns fishing from the trees perched precariously on the eroded river banks. A voyage up the mighty Amazon might sound rather romantic, but overall the reality is quite mundane and after a while becomes extremely tedious.

If you are reading this on TravelPod, then you will have gathered that we've arrived relatively safe and sound (excepting our highly abused eardrums) in Manaus and have managed to find an Internet Café. Tomorrow we'll find out whether DC3 has also made it here unscathed. It's quite likely that she's still out on the river somewhere, or maybe - horror of horrors - hasn't even been shipped from Belém yet!
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